July 1997

"An Artistic Escape"
Douglas E. Winter interviews Clive Barker at DragonCon 1997

Douglas Winter: It is an honor to introduce the unintroducible, Clive Barker. I am Douglas Winter and you are the Audience. You are indeed brave, if not Lost Souls, to have come out at 10:00 am which is rather early in convention time I think. It does suggest that a few of you might have stayed around for the Tyson / Holyfield fight last night. Since that is the case, Clive and I have agreed to reenact the fight. Before the interview we flipped a coin and I get to head-butt Clive and he gets to nibble on my ear.

What can I really say about Clive Barker? He is a bright and brilliant flame in a time of remakes and recycling. His talents have touched about every means of artistic communication possible. You all know of the things he has done, generally. At the moment, here's what I know.

*He's just completed an exhibition of erotic artwork in Los Angeles, all new artwork.
*He is writing two new novels (Galilee and The Holy Family).
*He's just completed a short novel for a book that I had the fortune of editing (Revelations).
*He is producing a series of television movies for Fox.
*He is producing a motion picture adaptation of Father of Frankenstein, based on the life of James Whale.
*He is executive Producing the forth coming Bernard Rose adaptation of The Thief of Always.
*And he is, as we speak, completing artwork for a new children's book that will include twenty five incredible, new color canvases as well as additional artwork for a book he will be writing some afternoon, I presume.

And that's only the things that I know about. Really Clive is a person of incredible talent that has affected us all; the reading public, the viewing public, the art seeking and art-going public. Interviewing Clive today is a particular challenge because I think he's not only one of the more interviewed people in the arena of writing, but I've also spent hours and hours interviewing Clive, either on tape or just sitting down talking. What I hope to do is attempt to do is to ask Clive questions that he's not been asked before or at best asked in a different way.

The first one that comes to mind is; here we are at 10:00 am on Sunday morning, shouldn't we all be in Church right now?

Clive Barker: I went to mass very early this morning (chuckles). Actually the older I get, the more attractive the idea of a Sunday ritual like that becomes. And I'm serious about that. I actually wish I had more belief in the church. There's a wonderful book by John Betchman, who did Summoned by Bells. The first poem is about Sunday morning in England, expressing a kind of passion for very English, and very safe vision of the world. Summoned by Bells expresses the passion for getting up on a Sunday morning and being summoned by that most reassuring of sounds to go and worship. I have a little portion of my perverse soul that has found that profoundly attractive. Doug Winter and I have spoken a lot on this and it has been almost a theme of this convention, a sort of middle-age. I was talking also to Doug Bradley about it and one of the things that I think has happened as I get older, some of the images that I found kind of repulsive as a child or a young man are coming back to me with a fresh power to seduce me. Out of England, where I haven't been in two years, those images come with particular power because I haven't been there for awhile. In Los Angeles if someone were to burn leaves, which is very unusual because it just doesn't happen, if you were to smell that sort of bitter sweet smell of burning dry vegetation I am suddenly a child again in that time of autumn and I feel a sense of longing for that again. When I was a kid, Sunday morning was a very religious time. The sound of Church bells on Sunday was always very reassuring. The fact that I only ever went to church a few times in my childhood, and one of them was for a baptism of which I didn't have any choice, it doesn't mean that there wasn't an incredible power with the association. I know that even the Christmas carols and the hymns that I sang as a child, when I think about the very repugnant sentiment of them, had an extraordinary power to move me. It's an association with feeling of childhood and feelings of security. As I get older I feel them falling away from me. I feel less and less certain of the world and I think I go back to the things that I did feel certain about as a child. Curiously some of the things are things that I believe if I had actually answered the Summons of the Bells and sat and listened to the sermons, I wouldn't be sitting here rhapsodizing about it because I would be bored witless by the experience. But the fact is that I didn't answer. So the answer is; give me another five years and I probably wouldn't be here, I would be at mass or maybe even serving it, who knows?

Douglas Winter: One of the characters in one of my stories asks if there is life after death. I would like to know your take on this idea.

Clive: I've been with dying people, quite a bit in the past few years. There were a few occasions when those people passed away when I was holding their hand. The central mystery of how this person can be here one minute and not be here the next is so massive. Their personalities, even in a dying person who might be on medication or whatever, create the sense of this person being right here one moment and literally not in the next and that is so unthinkable to us. When you are a kid there are some things you bother yourself with when you are going to bed; a clever physics teacher telling you that the universe may never have a beginning or the idea of infinity for example. I can't get my head around that Doug Winter will not be here someday. Maybe that's my personality conscript constantly refusing the idea of another personality conscript evaporating because I have my own. I don't have any great sentimental attachment to the idea of personality. I am with Freud who says, "It's a necessary neurosis and necessary defense for being in the world." We construct a very fragile set of parameters for activity and the limits of that activity become our personality. The personality is where you won't go as much as where you will go; your limits. Do I mind the idea that this series of limits that is Barker will disappear off the planet and out of history and out of being? No, it's fucking wonderful. Yet I can't get my head around that I was sitting with my friend Joe one minute and then I wasn't sitting with my friend Joe. It's very mysterious but not in the sense that mystery opens up the possibilities, it's not mysterious in a useful way. I don't find the idea of Life after death a terribly useful, important thing to think about while being alive. I wish I didn't think about it. I think huge numbers are comforted massively by the idea that their loss will be revisited. I suppose I'm comforted by that but I think it's sort of a sentimental level. I think I believe in life after death, but I don't think it's extremely important to do so.

Douglas Winter: Your take on personality is very interesting. It's fascinating to see that Clive is disinterested to talk about himself, an autobiography if you will, until recent years. There's definitely autobiography in your fiction, but it has not been as present in your fiction as Stephen King who tends to put himself much more visible on the page. In recent years that has changed. Is that something you believe has evolved in you creatively or is it simply coming to terms with the rapid rise to popular success where you are inevitably confronted with a double of you, someone that people see or think is Clive Barker but in truth is not you at all?

Clive: I don't find myself terribly interesting and one of the reasons why I write in the mode of trying to escape from the coral that is me. The removal of the limitation that is the self into the place that is the image are things that are boundless, this is the mystical heartbeat of what I do. It's always been that. Over and over, characters in my fiction seek after an experience in which they are released from themselves in some way or another-released from the idea of self or an experiences which is limited and the consequences are quite terrible, very often than not. The forgetting of self and remembering; two examples are Cal Mooney and Gentle. Both of them are very screwed up heroes who have experiences in other worlds which are resolved by their remembering in some way or another. Cal is brought back from a no-man's land or almost being physically erased by remembering himself, by seeing his own reflection. Gentle goes to the Imajica to realize that the villain of the Imajica is himself. The rememberings are in a sense about the self but more importantly about being taken out into the landscape of the imaginative world. For me, who I am, I am only a vehicle for that journey. What's being seen on that journey is more important than who I am. I'm not being self-effacing about that, it's just that I don't find the view, when I look at myself, very interesting. It's very familiar to me until I start to look at the places where I think that some of the things that have happened to me might be useful to other people in the way that I tell the story. Talking about being gay in Sacrament through the character- talking about depression in Chilliad and talking about middle-age in Chilliad as well. Talking about getting to the place where the certainties that take you through your thirties and drive you on. You think if only I had this or if I only do that, everything would be all right and then discovering that I've already got all these things and it still shows. I wanted to express these things truthfully about myself because I only become interesting to myself when I disappoint myself. If everything is just chugging along just fine, why write about it? There is nothing remotely interesting about that. What is interesting is to be troubled and screwed up and to be dealing with being troubled and screwed up. Out of that period, that rush through the first ten years of my career, everything was actually falling into place with an uncanny accuracy. I'm in a place now and I'm looking at who I am and saying I don't get it. How can I express that I don't get it in a way that is useful to other people and helps me get it? Fiction for me can only be a means to say how can I understand what is going on in my life better? It's the only thing that I can say, without question, helps me get to the page-this puzzle that is unsolved; why the fuck am I alive? I don't find myself any more ready to answer that question now than ten years ago.

Douglas Winter: Success also reads in a way of disappointment, I suppose. That's the idea that you might have become so successful that it's almost that the next thing you do for someone might be too easy. That there might be a lack of a critical eye looking back at it deciding if it should go forward.

Clive: I think one of the things I try to do is constantly try to do something different. If I constantly do something different I have succeeded. I don't like to repeat myself because I feel once I've got the trick of doing something, I'm certain that the second time I try to do the same type of material it would not be as good. Now that may not be true but I feel that the impetuous that takes me to the page or the canvas in the first place, the sense of how can I shape this and solve it's technical problems, that passion and energy would be reduced if I was going through the writing or painting already knowing what the solution was. That means to me that I have to be doing something fresh. That's why I went and wrote a kid's book, that's why I wrote a novel with a gay hero; to see if I would be able to write that for a straight audience. Pie o Pah is the perfect example. Pie o Pah is a mystif, which is a creature that is neither male nor female but rather a projection of your erotic desire at any given time in your life. Whatever you desire most when you are with that creature, that is what Pie o Pah will be. I remember thinking that this is going to be a really interesting creature to write because it is going to change sex and change it's form and yet be the emotional center of the book. I remember thinking, "If I screw this up I will screw up the next year and a half of my life," because Pie was the heart of this book. That excited me incredibly, the idea that I was walking a tight rope and I could screw it up. And I love being in front of the canvas when it curiously seems balanced between disaster and victory. The heart almost quickens at that point. The way that I paint, there's no direction to it. It only moves and moves with no little sketches on it and it just seems to do what it wants. I always know when the canvas reaches that point and I think that this is what it's all about, "I could fall flat on my face." I have this sort of trapeze artist instinct in me and I understand that there is no net. Success curiously is a net because there is a certain confidence when my publishers are satisfied with my work and I have a readership and there isn't that sense of risk. That's why some of the things I have on my sleeve for the next five years are some really whacked out stuff in my head. I really want to push and push because that's what get's my heart going. And it may very well be that the more I do the more experience I have. I think there might come a time when I might try to do something so large that it's bound to break my back. I've often thought that it would be nice to know the moment when you would die, I would go back five years and start a novel I would be bound to fail at writing. I would have the last three or four sentences to write, and it would be a "who done it". My heart would give out and I would slam down. My publisher would say, "Oh fuck, was it the butler? It's seven thousand pages long, who did it?!"

Douglas Winter: The transitions that your life has taken have been remarkable. There are certain doors open to you now that you could make plans for the next five years, but it wasn't always that way. It has been unintentional, some of the great successes that you have had. How do you deal with balancing all the different aspects of your creative life and more important ambitions that you have?

Clive: I have a very strict regime. Gladice, my housekeeper, knows that you could set your watch by my one o'clock lunch, the one thirty siesta, in the gym at six thirty and at my painting studio at seven thirty. Some of what I do is just about organization. I probably have somewhat of a neurotic response to that. I feel very uncomfortable, like I have the past four days, when the schedule prevents me from doing any writing. When I get back I know I will say "thank God" for the sense that I will be able to let these things flow since there is a feeling of something essential missing in a day when I do not get to do that. My grand ambition, what they might say at the end of my life if you will, are stimulated always by other artists. There was an exhibition of children's books in L.A, three hundred years of immensely stimulating books. To just go there and see what other artists had achieved, it just reminds you of the universalities of seeing those works of others. I remember the universal journey that artists are taking and that journey I think is to an expression of mystery. The more that I try to express, the more I feel that the essential things that I try to express are inexpressible. Which means that the deeper into my life that I get, the more I feel that the things that really move me are the word, painting and music even can only come some tiny way to express what they are trying. It's the heroic nature of failure that I find so moving and so inspiring. It's not achievement and it's not success. When you say successful and all the kind things that you say, a little part of me flips because I don't think that is true nor want to believe it's true. I've wrote for a character in the book that I am writing now, "If I die a success, that's because I didn't aim high enough." That's a recipe for self-contentment if there ever was one. It sets out that the idea that failure is the most that you can aim because that means you've aimed just beyond the limits of your capabilities. I realized what a disastrously, self-destructive philosophy that is, and yet I couldn't help but believe the character when he spoke that to me. And I believed him! I think you push yourself a bit harder when you're reaching a little bit further than you think you can.

Douglas Winter: To bring this full circle back to religion, what do you think it would be like to have sex with Jesus?

Clive: I think there's a gospel about this. I think that at least three of the disciples could have given us a hands-on expression of what happened. I tend to believe that Jesus was running some kind of Mushroom cult with masturbation as a side issue, and I'm not entirely kidding. There's a book called something like "Jesus and the Mushroom Cult" or something like that. It claimed that Jesus was a can-sexual, mushroom chewing shaman. I remember reading this around the time that I was really getting into Blake. Blake had said about Joshua Reynolds, who was his enemy, "we both read the bible day and night, but he reads black where I read white." Basically it claimed that the bible's open to an infinite number of interpretations. And I read this along with the "mushroom cult" and began to think that maybe it might also be a legitimate interpretation. Maybe in our sentimental eyes of what the Christ figure was up to, he has been desexualized and deliriously diminished. Maybe it's kind of healthy to put back that Jesus is a sexualized or eroticized figure. When you go to Europe, particularly in Spain and Portugal, you see Christ as a very eroticized figure and very often a sadomasochistically eroticized figure. I think it's also true in some other places, South America, where Catholicism took a very lush, sexualized interpretation to the path that allowed Christ to be rendered very realistically. Very often the wounds were realistically rendered, and very beautifully. So my answer is, to take the question far more seriously than you probably thought I might, the eroticized Christ is a hugely forbidden subject in our culture, but I think a very interesting one and one worthy of serious study.

* All text printed with permission of Clive Barker and Douglas Winter.